A Conversation About California Design at Mid-Century

Curator Wendy Kaplan / The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

This coming weekend, in conjunction with their exhibit on mid-century modern design, LACMA (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art)` is hosting a symposium that examines this still influential period in design history and why it exploded in California. I got a chance to sit down with curator Wendy Kaplan to learn a little bit about "the perfect storm" of events that gave birth to this fertile period. Here, our conversation.

Apartment Therapy: For those of us who live in Los Angeles, mid-century modern is our history. It's what we find in flea markets, vintage and charity shops. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Wendy Kaplan: I think it particularly resonates here becase it was our golden age for a variety of reasons. You had an explosion of creative activity in the immediate post war period. California was the center of war production for ship building, airplanes and you had millions of people coming to California to work in the war industries. In addition, California was a jumping off point for the war for the Western Theater so you also have millions of people being exposed to the California climate and, after the war, wanting to settle here. Then you have this highly educated work force with the promise of housing from the GI Bill, new opportunities for further education, coupled with industries that were all dressed up with nowhere to go that had to adapt so that they had post-war products to sell, domestic products, so you have this perfect storm of this pressing crisis of housing and furnishings, coupled with industries that were all geared up for production and needed to produce, coupled with this burst of technology of things that had been developed for the war, like fiberglass for nose cones, which Charles and Ray Eames gave a domestic application with their now famous fiberglass chairs -- they weren't the only ones but they're a well-known one -- and, in addition, Charles and Ray Eames' work for the Navy making molded plywood splints immediately found a post-war application and it's a great example because they'd been experimenting before the war but they didn't have enough access to the latest technology and the chairs that they produced before the war were really not middle class furnishings because they were expensive. It was their work for the Navy that gave them the access they needed. So, it was the optomism of the period, the creativity, and then this wonderful sense of "let's try it" that made this an incredibly exciting time.

AT: We're still so informed by that time period and by what was designed then -- even Ikea! it's still what we think of as modern. Why is that?

WK: Ikea's a good example and there you have the influence really going the other way where the Scandinavians were among the first to embrace this idea of beautiful, democratic design for everyday people, for everyday use, and this was something that resonated in California. As early as the 30s, stores in California were importing this clean modernism, a more humanistic modernism, which didn't reject the use of natural materials like wood. That was something that particularly resonated here. That is the great difference between European modernism and California's softer more humane modernism, which embraced color and craft. It's not the international style because the international style, by its very definition says "what's appropriate for Darjeeling is appropriate for Dallas" and California was saying no, we want to respond to the landscape, we want a modernism that's particular to California.

AT: It feels like California modern became the epitome of American modern.

WK: Very well said. That was something that the US State Department recognized: Calfornia becoming an emblem for the American dream. This was something that Wallace Stegner said so eloquently in the late 50s that "California is America, only more so." That was why something like architectural pottery [see photo 2 above] is so evocative because it's architectural pottery and it's mass production but it can be easily individualized and, in this case, it's individualized to make a rather abstract sculpture but one of them is a planter and one of them is a vase and you can have it in any combination so you have now mass production but still individuality within that. We have four themes of the show: Shaping California Modern, which talks about how all the tropes which became California Modern came into place in the 1930s. Making California Modern showcases the wide variety of production in California, ranging from the beautiful one-off pieces like Natzler's pottery to this explosion of mass production, as in the case of the Eames, but even within that you have individuality and choice -- what the base would be, what the color would be. Actually, you didn't have a bunch of chairs on a rack, you saw samples and you said, okay, I want this base and I want this color and I want ten and and then Herman Miller would get them made so there was individuality and choice within mass production and you also have this post-war explosion of these Mom and Pop shops. They're not making one-of-a-kind things, they're making what we call batch production. Our usual trading partner's economies had been decimated by the war so it took a number of years before Italy, Britian and France were exporting again, which means that you had this opportunity for these tiny little companies...

AT: Suddenly everybody's buying American!

WK: Yes! So you have this really unusual combination of factors. Then the living section, of course, is the California lifestyle -- indoor/outdoor living, floor-to-ceiling windows, again made possible by WWII technology. You had the dream of having a wall be just floor-to-ceiling windows but not the technology to execute it. That came after the war. Steel frame construction which, before the war was limited to high rises, after the war is applied to homes which enabled you to have floor-to-ceiling windows. There's this incredible combination of philosophy, economics, and aesthetics.

AT: A perfect storm. It feels like it has a lot of resonance of now. Why do you think that's true?

WK: Because it is such clean design. And it's not only clean but it's comfortable. The post-war designers, Henry Dreyfuss being a good example, were passionate about ergonomics as were the Eames. There wasn't a triumph of philosophy over comfort, as so often is the case with high European modernism. This was working hand in hand with not only how something looked but how did it feel to the touch? Did it support your back? Could it be made affordable? These are all issues that absolutely still resonate. Which, of course, brings us to the last section of the show which is selling, without which there can be nothing else and that is a really exciting section of the show because it's not only how California was sold within the State, but throughout the country and throughout the world through exhibitions, through books, through magazines. Whole issues of magazines were devoted to this and then there were these exhibitions like the California Design series at the Pasadena Art Museum which was from 1954-76, and you had the State Department organizing exhibitions that were part of Cold War propaganda where California products played a large part.

AT: How wonderful it would be if the State still supported this design, given that we have the amazing, rich history. Granted there was the subtext...

WK: It was an incredible time. I'm in awe of Hodgetts + Fung because they so captured the period. The exhibition is divided in this incredible helix that is never entirely closed so that there are lots of places that you see right through, so that you have the deliniation of space but it's still open which is so perfect, not to mention that the helix itself is a biomorphic form, so much of the style of the period. The response has been amazing and we've extended the show now through June and we're working on a tour through Asia. And you'll see a lot of designers, like designer and craftspeople, a lot of them women, and you'll see a lot of names that will be new and suprising. One goal was bringing a lot of relatively unknown people to light, the other was building a collection for LACMA so that in the course of the five years of preparation, over a hundred things in the show were purchased for the museum. Where else should you come to see a great collection of California design and learn about the culture of both the city and the state than LACMA?

AT: Thank you Wendy for taking the time to talk to us and for giving us a wonderful foundation of knowledge from which to really enjoy this show.

• Tickets for the exhibit and for New Narratives for "Living in A Modern Way: California Design at Mid-century", the weekend long symposium that begins this Friday, are available by calling 323.857.6010, at the box office, or online.
• LACMA is offering a special discount just for Apartment Therapy readers: 20% off the Active Level membership (regularly $90). Promo code: APARTMENT (case-sensitive). Deadline to redeem is March 10.

Images: Image 1, Abigail Stone; other images courtesy of LACMA, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art